Surveys for years have shown an appalling lack of knowledge of civics and history among even the supposed educational elite in America – and appreciation for the nation's founding documents, principles, and principals seems to be falling among current students even as older Americans have created a thriving market for books on the subject.
Just two weeks ago, I was in a group of older folks (relatively speaking – I'm 53) talking with eight or nine students at one of the nation's most prestigious universities, and early in the proceedings one of us fogeys mentioned 56 delegates of the Second Continental Congress having pledged "lives, fortunes, and sacred honor" to their cause. Thinking that I saw a lack of familiarity, among the current students, with that reference, I returned to it an hour later (without specifically referencing my compatriot's earlier comment) to ask who could identify the source of the "lives/fortunes/honor" phrase.
Most of the students looked blankly ahead. One, suddenly remembering the earlier comment, said, "yeah, that's something that a bunch of members of the Second Continental Congress said."
Me: "Yes, but what document did that pledge come from?"
No answer. No clue. Astonishing.
The point is not to belittle those fine students. The point is that even as they made it to the ranks of the academic elite, they obviously were deprived of anything approaching a decent education. That they can't identify one of the two most famous phrases in the Declaration of Independence should not surprise those who have seen surveys for decades showing, for example, only 31 percent of Americans correctly answered when asked if the U.S. Constitution contains Karl Marx's dictum "from each according to his ability to each according to his needs."
This is an American tragedy of epic proportions. Fortunately, it's not just conservatives who recognize this. Famed academic E.D. Hirsch Jr., a self-described liberal writing in the just-released Spring issue of the journal Democracy, laments that "school neglect of factual knowledge, including American history and its civic principles, joined with a general de-emphasis of 'rote learning' and 'mere fact,' induced a decline in widely shared factual knowledge among Americans. This not only weakened their ability to read and communicate; it has left them with weaker patriotic sentiments, and with a diminished feeling that they are in the same boat with Americans of other races, ethnicities, and political outlooks."
Hirsch writes that "nationalism," properly understood, is a good thing, and he is saddened that "our young people's low opinion of their own country has been intensified by the current disrepute of nationalism in any form in our schools and universities."
(From the right, National Review's Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru recently have been making a similar case in favor of nationalism.)
Hirsch is obviously correct about the "America is bad" sentiments prevailing at so many colleges, as even a cursory glance at university-related headlines repeatedly shows. Most college kids today, for example, probably detest Thomas Jefferson more for his (arguably falsely) alleged, illicit relations with Sally Hemings than admire him for so greatly advancing the cause of liberty beyond anything that had earlier prevailed.
The solution to these problems is, in one sense, simple, as Hudson Institute Fellow Bruce Cole wrote right here at the Washington Examiner a few years ago: "To increase knowledge of civics, try teaching civics."
The good news is that at least some in the education establishment are finally catching on: Just this month came a report that "Kentucky last week and Arkansas on March 16 became the latest of more than a dozen states since 2015 that have required [more extensive civics education in] the high school social studies curriculum."
Still, to really appreciate the glory of America's system of ordered liberty, it is crucial to understand the drama and sacrifice involved in securing that liberty in the first place. Here's hoping that the new Museum of the Revolution tells that story well, and that it becomes a huge success.
Quin Hillyer (@QuinHillyer) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a former associate editorial page editor for the Washington Examiner.
Quin Hillyer is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. If you would like to write an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, please read our guidelines on submissions here.